When I was in seminary back in the mid 1980s I was informed by some, (not all) of my Seminary teachers, that the old funeral masses were a very dark affair. Black vestments and somber prayers all focused on judgment were supposedly an extreme that had to give way. Never mind that the new Mass permitted black or purple vestments,  the point was that we were not to use black vestments and were to wholly avoid any “negative” themes like judgment, purgatory or (the absolutely forbidden) hell.

Discussions about funeral masses were common in my seminary years since the revised rite of funerals was coming out at that time and, just like the new translation we have just inaugurated, there were many vigorous discussion about the funeral rite of 1970 and how the one coming out in 1987 (in think) was either an improvement or a step backward.

By the time I was ordained in the late 1980s it was once again permitted to offer the traditional Latin Mass, and though some argued that this didn’t include funerals, we routinely celebrated them here in DC as early as 1987. I have been privileged to celebrate at couple of these traditional Latin funeral masses per year, by request all 24 years of my priestly life. (The photo at upper right is me celebrating one last November in one of our Maryland Parishes). I celebrated a Requiem today, in fact: James Glenn, rest in peace.

And I find these funerals (called Requiem Masses) anything but dark. Let me explain.

To begin, though,  early in my priesthood I had little of no memory of the older funeral rites. I was, in those days before the current motu proprio,  one of the few priests permitted by the diocese to celebrate the TLM. Thus, as  I began my study of the old Requiem Mass I  fully expected, based on my training to wince, and to have to try and reassure the faithful who requested this form of the Mass, that things weren’t so bad after all. So, upon receiving my first request for a Requiem,  I studied the Requiem Mass carefully.

I noted first that the dreaded and dark affair, described so by some of my seminary faculty, was called a “Requiem Mass.” Hmm…. in other words,  a “Mass of Rest.” That doesn’t shout of foreboding things, seems rather peaceful actually, and far more hopeful that the more usual modern word, “funeral.”Indeed the opening words of the dreaded Requiem Mass read (translated) Rest Eternal grant unto them O Lord and may perpetual light shine on them. Hmm… I thought, we’re not off to such a terrible start.

Greeting the Body at the door of the Church, though less baptismal in focus contains the beautiful wishes:

Come to his assistance, ye Saints of God, come forth to meet him, ye Angels of the Lord….receiving his soul, offer it in the sight of the Most High…..May Christ receive thee who has called thee….and may the Angels lead thee into Abraham’s bosom.

The opening prayer too, appeals to God’s mercy, though (heaven forfend), it does mention Hell:

O God, whose property is ever to have mercy and to spare, we humbly entreat Thee on behalf of the soul of Thy servant whom Thou hast bidden to pass out of this world: that Thou wouldst not deliver him into the hands of the enemy nor forget him for ever, but command him to be taken up by the holy Angels, and to be borne to our home in paradise, that as he had put his faith and hope in Thee he may not undergo the pains of hell but may possess everlasting joys.

Perhaps to modern ears the very mention of Hell is “dark,” but the whole prayer is premised on God to whom it is proper to show mercy and to spare. Hence it is a prayer uttered in confident expectation that grace and mercy mean we stand a chance. And, as for that little mention of “Hell,”….isn’t that….like….in the Bible or something?

So, in my study I still had not found where we had gone to dark, negative places, as I had been taught to expect.

The readings too surprised me. The Epistle is from First Thessalonians 4: Brethren, we would not have you ignorant concerning those who sleep, lest you be like the others who have no hope. Then comes the great teaching on the day of resurrection and the conclusion: Therefore console One another with these words. The Gospel too is of Jesus dialogue with Martha in John 11: Your brother will rise…I AM the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Beautiful and consoling, really.

There is of course the Dies Irae in between these two readings. I recall an older priest many years ago when the subject came up proclaiming exultantly: “Thank God we got rid of that dreadful thing.” It does truly begin on an ominous note: Day of wrath and doom impending, heaven an earth in ashes ending….Oh what fear man’s bosom rendenth, when from heaven the judge decendeth, on whose sentence all dependeth. True, these are dark lines, but biblical lines. Yet the same Dies Irae contains some of the most hopeful and tender lines in all Christian writing:

Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
On the cross of suffering bought me:
Shall such grace be vainly bought me?

Through the sinful Mary shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope has given.

Loving Jesus Lord most blest,
Grant to them eternal rest.
Amen.

The darker lines thus highlight the lightsome ones. Even the Dies Irae is not all that bad. I have written more on it here: Sing the Dies Irae at my Funeral

I obviously cannot reproduce the whole Requiem Mass here but consider just a few other highlights of the hopeful and gentle themes that are struck in the prayers

  1. From the Preface: …through Christ our Lord, in whom the hope of blessed resurrection has shone on us, so that those who are saddened by the certainty of dying may be consoled by the promise of a future deathless life. For to thy faithful people, Oh Lord, life is changed, not taken away, and when the home of this earthly sojourn is dissoloved, an eternal dwelling place is being prepared in the heavens.
  2. From the Communion verse: May light eternal shine on them O Lord, with your saints forever. For you are kind.
  3. Finally, if there is any “darkness” at all in the old Requiem Mass, it is more likely due to the fact that we have departed a great degree in modern times from the notion that, after we die, we are certainly judged. And this judgement is a moment of honesty before God. Surely all of us will need much in the way of grace and mercy. The prayers of the older Requiem give honest acknowledgment of that, but draw heavily on Biblical themes. In the end, these prayerful reflections are always couched on the fact that God is rich in mercy. One of the final prayers, at the commendation of the soul shows this balance. Standing before the casket the priest says:
  4. Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord; for, save Thou grant him forgiveness of all his sins, no man shall be justified in Thy sight. Wherefore suffer not, we beseech Thee, the sentence Thou pronounce in judgment upon one whom the faithful prayer of Christian people commends to Thee, to be a doom which shall crush him utterly. Rather sustain him by Thy gracious favor, that he may escape Thine avenging justice who, in his lifetime, was signed with the seal of the holy Trinity. Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.

Disclaimers – Most of you know that I love the Traditional Latin Mass, especially in its sung forms. However, I also like the Ordinary Form of the Mass and it is the way I celebrate 99% of my masses.

The New Funeral Mass is not intrinsically flawed, such that it wholly fails to balance notions of judgement and mercy. It does tip the hat more to the baptismal and Easter themes, but there are enough options in the readings and prayers that allow for proper balance.

If there are imbalances in modern funerals it is not wholly the fault of the liturgy. Rather, the imbalance of our culture and the clergy’s emphases seem more at work.

For the record, black vestments can still be worn in the newer rites, as well as purple. There is nothing to prevent the clergy from preaching clearly on judgement and purgation, as well Heaven. I surely do,  and also issue a pretty sober “come to Jesus” talk in the sermon, since so many who are at funerals are not practicing their faith.

Thus, balance can be had in the newer rites. This post is simply meant to express that a pronouncement of the Requiem Mass as dark and somber, which I was regularly subjected to in my training, is simplistic.

The reality I have come to experience in over 23 years of celebrating Requiem Masses is that they are both gentle and hopeful, sober about judgement but well steeped in mercy and confidence in God’s loving kindness.

Here is an example of my “Come to Jesus” talk at funerals. Please understand, this is only an excerpt from a longer sermon wherein other themes of mercy are well explored.

26 Responses

  1. Alan says:

    The Subvenite chant is very sobering and beautiful to hear.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L_nYwcCmbc

  2. Nick says:

    Requiem Mass is more about life than death. We’re not Ancient Greeks, who worried over human mortality and believed gods couldn’t love mortals. We’re Catholics, who know God is Life and Love.

  3. Linus says:

    I loved the old Requem Mass. The music was fantastic. We also had ” Requem ” memorial Masses for those already buried. In the later case a ” fake ” casket was draped in the traditional black drape and the Mass was said pretty much as at a regular Requem ( as far as I was aware of what went on). With all that kind of ” water cooler ” talk going on, no wonder we educated a generation of dissenters. How did you survive that kind of atmosphere?

    • sonny n says:

      i believe the term for the “fake” casket is “catafalque.” I distinctly remember the sweet cadenced chant of the DIES IRAE. There was an unmistakeable consolation in hearing this during the rite (“… solvet saeclum in favila …”). Youtube has a beautiful recording of this hymn.

  4. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    After Summorum Pontificum, my pastor began to offer funeral Masses with the 1962 Missal.

    I photographed the first, such solemn high Mass when the beloved elderly house-keeper was tragically killed out front as she crossed the street, heading home. This, along with the photopost, was done with the permission of the family. The pics can be seen in a slideshow embedded in my post, and there should be a link there that will take you to the gallery if you prefer to look through them that way.

    Everything about the requiem is so beautiful. The focus is on the departed soul, offering prayers for the person that really had an impact on me. There is a lot of catechesis there and those last things.

    Both weddings and funerals are requested with the 1962 Missal with increasing frequency at the parish.

  5. Mary Floore says:

    Beautifully articulated. So… are you busy this Sunday? So many of the faithful filling the pews need to hear this message spoken truthfully and without the fear of offending the recipients of the message.

    The thief in the night comes quickly…

  6. Dennis D says:

    The problem is less with the tone of the Ordinary Form. It is that too many leave the Mass thinking that the deceased is now an angel in heaven. Wrong. He/she cannot be an angel since they’re human. Second, there are three possible outcomes and we don’t know–yet–where that person “has gone.” Third, and most importantly, most of us leave the funeral Mass not realizing we should continue to pray for this person precisely because we don’t know that they’re in heaven. The Church Suffering needs our prayers.

    It used to be that there were “holy cards” available at the funeral home with a prayer for the deceased on the reverse side. Nowadays, you’re just as likely to find some fatuous poem or aphorisms that provide no benefit to either the deceased or the living. So the problem isn’t the Mass. It’s the failure of modern catechesis about the four last things.

  7. Daniel says:

    No doubt there are some beautiful sentiments expressed in the prayers of the Requiem. It has given comfort to countless people in time of grief and we should take it all in context. But if it is to be seen as a Catechetical tool, then (in the name of ‘lex orandi lex credendi’) I must say it always seemed a bit odd to me that after declaring our belief in God’s mercy we then “entreat Thee on behalf of the soul of Thy servant … that Thou wouldst not deliver him into the hands of the enemy nor forget him for ever” and “beseech Thee, (suffer not) the sentence Thou pronounce in judgment upon one whom the faithful prayer of Christian people commends to Thee, to be a doom which shall crush him utterly.”
    Why must a loving a merciful God be begged not to forget the deceased forever (just a little while?) or not to impose a sentence which would “crush him utterly”? God seems to be presented with a dual personality. Also, shouldn’t a Christian funeral “tip the hat more to the baptismal and Easter themes”? Isn’t the Resurrection a fundamentally “imbalanced” moment of salvation? Maybe I’m new-fashioned, but I think it should be emphasized more than judgment, since that is the source of our Christian Hope. Thanks for the thoughtful posts.

    • Well, the balance is Biblical Daniel. The tension you point to exists throughout the Biblical text and that tension exists all the way through the New Testament texts that are thoroughly imbued with appreciation for the resurrection and God’s mercy yet also acknowledge that we will be judged and that people can and do, by Jesus own words descend the wide road that leads to perdition. The Church can only pray based on what God teaches.

    • Bender says:

      Why must a loving a merciful God be begged not to . . .?

      Although Jesus is the One Savior, we must remember that the Lord has made it very clear that He wants this to be a group effort. He asks us to help in the work of salvation. We do that, in part, by intercessory prayer. We do that, not by being presumptuous of God, but by being humble (and polite) enough to ask.

      We must also remember that Jesus Himself is a savior in part by intercession. He Himself “begs” a loving and merciful Father not to condemn us. The Son beseeches the Father to take the justice that is rightly due us for our iniquities and to crush Him instead, i.e. the baptismal and Easter themes.

  8. TJV3 says:

    Msgr., In reference to the color of vestments, it is my understanding that the universal rubric in the Ordinary Form is that Black or Violet be worn when offering Mass for the Dead. However, English-speaking commonlaw countries have an Indult to wear white at these Masses, a practice not permitted throughout Europe and South America.

    God bless you and your work.

  9. Romulus says:

    I wonder if those who disdain traditional requiems have considered how they underscore the awesome extent of human dignity, whose exercise has eternal consequences. Understood thus, traditional requiems are very much a “celebration of life” that honor the departed as one called to eternal blessedness.

    Our parish has instituted a monthly Solemn Requiem and absolution in the x-form, for all the faithful departed, especially those of our parish. We are blessed with the location, personnel, and equipment that allow the liturgy to be celebrated with great beauty and dignity. As others have suggested above, in its explicit and repeated reference to mercy and intercession, this liturgy fills me not with anguish or morbid dread, but with peace and consolation. The regular celebration of such requiems can become a valuable apostolate for the benefit of the Poor Souls, as well as for survivors still coming to terms with their grief.

    Many of the faithful find that this liturgy answers a deeply-felt need. After our most recent requiem three days ago, I was approached by three men asking to be trained to serve this form of the Mass.

  10. Mary says:

    Dennis hit it right on the head and as I have grown older, I have become more concerned about the instant canonization feeling that one can get from a typical “Mass of the Resurrection”. Unless it is a funeral for a baptized infant or child under the age of reason, we have to wait on the church to declare someone a saint in heaven. I saw a program from a funeral of a person who died due to an unfortunate situation which definitely called for prayer and the program made no mention of this and the commemorative item was not a holy card but an upbeat happy sticker.
    I have tried to do more to pray for the deceased and I definitely letting it be known I will want a TLM requiem when I die.

  11. Deacon Henry says:

    At my brother’s funeral, I preached on the Last Four Things. I never mentioned a word about his life although he was a priest and lived a very faithful and holy life during his 50 years of ministry as a Jesuit.

  12. Matthew says:

    Msgr:
    I believe you hit the nail on the head when you say “balance CAN be had in the new rites.” This I think is the fundamental difference. Balance is built into the old rite. The new rite CAN be balanced if the celebrant chooses the appropriate options
    Matthew

  13. Ioannes says:

    Excellent post Mgr. The requiem Mass and its chant propers are, I think, the highest musical achievement of Western civilisation.

  14. Dan Buckley says:

    I became an altar boy in ’53, in 3rd grade, and even before I took Latin in high school, I was very familiar with the requiem Mass, said frequently throughout the week whenever the Sacrifice was offered for someone deceased. Since we all had missals, it wasn’t difficuult to learn what the prayers were about. “Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tolitur,” were words that brought me great comfort when someone close passed away. I can still hear the tones of the gospel being sung, “Credis hoc?” Never did I find the requiem a dark journey, but rather one of great comfort. Perhaps my familiarity, perhaps some nostalgia, but there was a deep sense of rightness in that celebration that escapes me in the OF. But we went to wakes as children then, recognizing that death is real; so many today want to hide from death. In any case, I have asked my family to make sure that the Dies Irae be sung at my requiem. Thanks so much for your reflection, Msgr.

  15. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    When I was in the fourth and fifth grade back in 1961-62, I was in the school chior at St. Cecilia Catholic School and we occassionally sang at a funeral with a requiem Mass. I didn’t know what much of the Latin lyrics were saying but I never felt the service was dark or foreboding. They were some of the most memorable and beautiful experiences in my life in the Church. It was more like the epitome of one’s time on earth.

  16. John Manidis,osj says:

    YOU KNOW, THAT WE LIVE IN A FUNNY WORLD. IN SOME SENSE WE HAVE BEEN OVERWELMED WITH ALL KINDS OF WONDERFUL, STRANGE AND UNUSUAL HAPPINGS, ENOUGH TO MAKE OUR HEADS SPIN.
    I JUST WANTED TO THANK YOU FOR THIS THOUGHTFUL AND PRAYERFUL AND BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE. WOULD BELIEVE THAT BOTH MY WIFE AND I HAVE BOTH BEEN SAYING FOR MANY YEARS, PLEASE TO EACH OTHER,PLEASE SING THE “DIES IRAE”, AT MY LAST MASS.
    WHAT WILL LONG LIVE IN MY MIND, AS A SEMINARIAN, WHERE THOSE COLD MORNINGS IN LENT, WHEN WE WERE IN THE CHAPEL AT 5:30AM EVERY WEEK DURING LENT SINGING THE OLD REQIEM MASS.YOU KNOW THERE WAS NEVER A TIME THAT, I, AT LEST FELT THAT WE EVER FELT, THAT IT WAS EITHER BLACK OR DARK. IT SEEMED TO PUSH US ALL INTO THE REAL WORLD AND WHAT IT WAS NOT GOING TO BE A VERY LONG TIME UNTIL OTHERS WOULD BE SINGING THOSE BEAUTIFUL WORDS OVER ME AND ALL THAT I LOVED.
    IT WOULD SEEM, IF ALL WAS BLACK WITH THIS MUSIC, THA CENTURIES LATER IT SHOULS POP UP
    IN SO MANY CLASICAL PIECES.
    IN YOUR SERMON, YOU ADVISE US TO READ THE SCRIPTUE ALL OF THE TIME. WHO IS IT WHOEVER
    THINKS, THAT WHILE THEY BURY THEIR LOVED ONES, THAT ALL OF LIFE IS FOUND IN THAT MASS THAT DAY, IN THE VERY WORDS THAT SURROUND US AT THIS SAD TIME.ALL TELL US OF WHAT AOU LIVES AMMOUNT TO AT THE END. WE MUST PRAY THAT THE ALL END WELL, IN OUR DEAR LORD’S ARMS.

  17. TeaPot562 says:

    Just as we need to pray for our children, parents and other relatives while alive, we should continue to pray for those deceased after death. We all fall short of God’s justice. Few of us can imitate St. Dismas and “steal heaven” while dying. It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead (See 2nd Maccabees.) The “instant canonization” often presented by the homilist at today’s funeral masses causes many to deprive the dead – those in the “Church Suffering” in Purgatory – of prayers of us survivors. God is indeed merciful; but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
    TeaPot562

  18. Cynthia BC says:

    Slightly off-topic, but on vestment colors:

    Having been reared as a Lutheran, I still find it jarring to see red rather than black vestments on Good Friday.

  19. MikefromED says:

    At a recent Funeral Mass (in the Ordinary Form) I attended, the second reading was The Epistle from First Thessalonians 4. Listening to the words I thought that I would very much like that read at my Funeral Mass (although I would much prefer a Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form). I’m also none too keen on white vestments at a Funeral Mass – I live in the UK. I’d like a bit more emphasis on the Four Last Things – by the time my body is in the coffin I’ll have been through the first two and hopefully avoided Hell, so presumably it might not do me any good but it might be of benefit to the people attending my Funeral Mass.

  20. Riona says:

    Thank you for sharing these much needed thoughts and points of view. Beautiful blog, great homily and wonderful insight into the Latin Mass.

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